Maple attack at Martin Picard's Sugar Shack

Montreal’s rebel chef and his crew stir the pot with a new cookbook

Maple attack at the sugar shack

Photgraph by Roger LeMoyne

If fans of Montreal chef Martin Picard want to indulge in the elaborate Monte Cristo he serves at his Sugar Shack, they’ll have to make it themselves: the restaurant in St-Benoît de Mirabel is fully booked. At least now they can have the recipe. The sandwich of ham, shredded pork shoulder, liver mousse, apple purée, caramelized and pickled onions and cheddar cheese on French toast is one of 100-plus dishes detailed in his new cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, a 380-page ode to maple syrup and Quebec gastronomy.

This is no ordinary tome. There are recipes for squirrel, beaver and Canada goose, but there’s also a fable, a short story and a chapter by two biologists on maple syrup production. And no ordinary book launch would do for the chef who once eviscerated a pig on the French version of his TV show, The Wild Chef. Instead, Picard threw a party at the cabane à sucre itself.

There were scrambled eggs in maple syrup, flapjacks cooked in duck fat, maple cookies, maple meringues, and maple candy floss. A lobster omelette included the head and tail of the crustacean poking out, as though its middle had sunk into the murky depths of the soufflé.

Just as the 45-year-old chef relied on colleagues and friends to produce his first cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon—The Album, so he did with his second. Populating the 2,000-plus photographs are a crew of photogenic twentysomethings who weave through the dining room. Pastry chef Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller, who is pictured submerged in a tub of maple syrup at the beginning of one chapter, replenishes glass bowls with her sweet delights and later scrubs a cooking range with steel wool. Au Pied de Cochon’s chef de cuisine, Emily Homsy, pulls apart slow-cooked veal from a shank that still bears a Jurassic-looking bone. And Vincent Dion Lavallée, a 24-year-old chef who appears in the book dressed in nothing but bright blue shorts and rain boots (“good enough to eat,” according to Picard), handles four suckling pigs and 20 pork bellies in the behemoth red smoker out front.

“The book is so much more than recipes,” says Rivard-Hiller. “We were maybe five or six on the project. That’s pretty much it. It’s like a small family.”

And how. The chef’s uncle Marc Picard, affectionately known as Mononc’, stands at the bar wearing his signature workboots and baseball hat, sipping a diet ginger ale. He’s the master boiler in charge of the evaporator.

“This is our life,” explains Martin Picard. “Maybe there’s a lot who played the superstar or whatever but that doesn’t work in a cook’s life. There’s some exceptions, like Anthony Bourdain, but there’s very few people who can do it. A lot of people are doing shows and having almost no money but they are playing the f–king big chef, the f–king big star.”

Later, the father of two hams it up—slapping a suckling pig’s butt and pulling on its ringlet tail—for a photo. As the party gets under way, Chablis and Côtes du Rhône flow and food stations in the kitchen and evaporator room serve decadent delights such as pork belly glazed with maple syrup, lobster dunked in maple syrup and melted butter, and steamed buns stuffed with duck.

While guests roast maple marshmallows and spicy sausages over a bonfire outside, Picard is signing books. Five hours later, he’s still at it. Some people cart around three or more copies, but the record, reports the woman manning the book sale, is eight. “It was the father of the girl [Marie-Claude St-Pierre] who took all the pictures.”

In the kitchen, a crowd gathers around two men butchering a suckling pig: Charles-Antoine Crête, sous-chef at Montreal’s Toqué!, separates a hindquarter with his blade while three-Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, in from New York, lops off the head, removes a morsel of meat from the cheek and feeds it to a woman in the crowd, which also includes Joe Beef’s Dave McMillan and Normand Laprise, chef and owner of Toqué! and Picard’s old boss.

As Picard wraps up his book duties, the sound of champagne being uncorked erupts. Now, one suspects, the real party will start.

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